All real estate licensees, not just Realtors®, are obligated to follow Fair Housing laws. That obligation includes not providing information that could be used to enable their clients to discriminate.

Children are a protected class – protected against real estate discrimination.

Children are protected under the general heading of “familial status” in National Fair Housing Law, and they are specifically mentioned as “children” under Massachusetts Fair Housing Law.

Children in rental housing

Many landlords illegally discriminate against young families. Some are motivated to avoid the cost of providing a lead-safe apartment for children under six. Some seek to avoid noise complaints from other tenants. But neither of these things make a non-occupant landlord exempt from their obligation to rent to families with young children.

Under some conditions, owner-occupied two and three family houses are exempt from the obligation to rent to families with children. This reduces the options for young families in residential area in Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Malden, Arlington, Watertown, Belmont and other close-to-Boston towns and cities. It increases the problems faced by young families looking to rent.

Ask any parent of a child under six who has looked for rental property about this; discrimination is a problem.

Children in purchase housing

Real estate licensees should not provide information that may entice a buyer or seller to discriminate. Therefore, if a licensee provides information about how “child friendly” a neighborhood is, that licensee may be steering buyers with children to that property and steering buyers without children away from that property or neighborhood. That is discrimination against some buyers on the basis of familial status.

Residential property sellers are more likely to discriminate against potential buyers who do not have children, or who do not intend to have children. This type of discrimination affects people who are not married, LGBTQ+ people, or other potential buyers who seem to not fit into a heterosexual, coupled norm. Discriminating against purchasers without young children is just as  wrong as it is to discriminate against renters with children.

Steering is illegal under Fair Housing Law. Steering is the practice of not showing properties or communicating that a potential buyer may not like certain properties based on the identity of the prospective buyer. Therefore, a licensee should avoid terms like “family neighborhood” because it could communicate that prospective buyers without children is not welcome.

“Steering” is the practice of influencing a buyer’s choice of communities based upon one of the protected characteristics under the Fair Housing Act, which are race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin. Steering occurs, for example, when real estate agents do not tell buyers about available properties that meet their criteria, or express views about communities, with the purpose of directing buyers away from or towards certain neighborhoods due to their race or other protected characteristic. If a client requests a “nice,” “good,” or “safe” neighborhood, a real estate professional could unintentionally steer a client by excluding certain areas based on his or her own perceptions of what those terms means. [source: NAR]

Problems with prospective buyer letters to sellers

Not only should your licensee not tell a buyer whether a neighborhood is child friendly: that licensee should not be telling the seller whether the prospective buyer has or intends to have children.

This communication was common, until recently. The National Association of Realtors® moved to re-educate its membership in recent years. Among the trends based on this training is to “outlaw” or disallow prospective buyers from writing letters to sellers. These letters, written incorrectly, can pass on information that could enable discrimination.

4 Buyers Real Estate does not think that these letters are inherently discriminatory. However, many other companies have not trained their agents in writing letters that do not involve demographic information that could lead to discrimination. Our clients have lost something in not being able to pass on reasons that they are good buyers for this house that has nothing to do with their race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin.

I understand the confusion among brokers who want to stay on the right side of these laws. NAR has shared inconsistent training over the years. Its web site still advises prospective buyers to share information about having children in letters they send to sellers of properties. (If this link went dead, they finally removed a sample letter. It advised to “paint a picture” about how mother and daughter would walk to school together from this house, if the seller chooses their offer).

How do you find out about a town or neighborhood?

A general guide that 4 Buyers Real Estate shares with prospective buyers advises buyers to spend time in a town or neighborhood to get their own sense of what living there will be like. During 2020, we added more online resources that might help with that task, remotely. That 2020 guide remains helpful, even when more face-to-face interaction is safe.

Good luck with your house hunting. We hope you make good decisions about the house as well as the community you choose.